World-renowned folk musician and songwriter, Peter “Pete” Seeger, was born in 1919. He came from a wealthy New England family, and both his parents were classical musicians. In the summer of 1936, when Seeger was 17 years old, he went to “Mountain Dance and Folk Festival” in Asheville, N.C. At the festival, Seeger had what he called a “conversion experience.”
He heard the music of the working class, played on traditional instruments like the banjo. Seeger devoted his life to this kind of music, which was not performed in concert halls for the wealthy, but in the mining towns, tenant farms, and other places where working people gathered to dance and entertain themselves.
It was at the age of 17, when Seeger devoted his life to folk music, that he also joined the Young Communist League. In 1936, the Communist Party and its allied organizations were large and influential. In the 1930s, the CP made a big effort to work with artists, intellectuals, and entertainers as part of the strategy of building a “People’s Front Against Fascism.” Many popular musicians, such as Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Aaron Copeland, and Huddie Ledbetter were close to the CP during this time.
The CP distinguished itself from other left-wing political organizations of the period by its staunch opposition to racism and Jim Crow segregation. Seeger made an effort to promote African-American music as well as other songs of the working class, including “Goodnight Irene,” written by blues musician Ledbetter, and “We Shall Overcome,” an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Seeger and other leftists, including CP members, created “People’s Songs,” an organization that recorded and promoted music associated with progressive struggles.
No surrender to McCarthyism
After the Second World War, there was a rise of right-wing anti-communism in the United States, commonly called “McCarthyism.” The CP was forced to function as an underground organization, with many of its leaders jailed. Despite the hostile political climate, Seeger did not distance himself from the Communist movement, or cease his radical activism.
In 1948, Seeger performed music while touring with the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, who broke with the Democrats to form the “Progressive Party.” Wallace’s 1948 campaign focused on opposing segregation, defending the rights of labor unions, and promoting friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union. Millions of people voted for Wallace because he opposed racism and militarism.
In 1949, a lynch mob was assembled to attack a concert in Peekskill, N.Y. Singing “We Shall Overcome,” activists mobilized by the CP blocked the right-wing crowd from entering the concert and lynching famed musician and activist Paul Robeson. As the concert ended, the police forced Seeger, his spouse, Toshi Seeger, and his infant child to drive through the right-wing crowd. Members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Legion pelted the car with bricks and rocks, shattering the windows.
In 1955, Seeger was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was asked to testify about his membership in the CP, and to name other artists and musicians who worked with it. He refused, and as a result was convicted of “contempt of Congress.” He was sentenced to serve a year in prison, though his conviction was eventually overturned by an appeals court.
Because Seeger was unapologetic about his association with the CP, and his support of anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles, he was banned from appearing on TV or radio, despite being one of the most popular folk musicians in the country.
As a result, songs written by Seeger such as “If I Had A Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” were made popular by other folk performers like Peter, Paul, and Mary, and the Kingston Trio.
Opposing war, honored by Cuba
While Seeger was banned from TV and radio, he continued to perform at anti-war and Civil Rights rallies, despite being constantly harassed by the FBI. He composed and performed a song at anti-war rallies called, “Bring ‘em Home,” in which he justified the actions of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, proclaiming:
There is one thing I must confess
I am not really a pacifist
If any army invaded this land of mine
I’d be out on the firing line
Even if they brought their planes to bomb
And helicopters and napalm
After years of being banned from the airwaves, Seeger returned to national TV in 1968, when he appeared on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, performing a song criticizing the Vietnam war called “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.”
Seeger was a supporter of the movement against nuclear proliferation in the 1970s and 1980s. He also was also a known environmentalist, sponsoring concerts against pollution.
It is unclear exactly when Pete Seeger resigned from the CP. Later in life he became much less supportive of countries around the world building socialism. However, he was outspoken in his support for the Cuban Five. In 1999, the Cuban government awarded Seeger “the Order of Felix Vera,” in honor of his “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”
Seeger never distanced himself from communism as an idea. When asked about the communist anthem “The Internationale,” he declared “if there’s a world here 100 years from now, this song will be part of that world,” reported the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 28.
In October of 2011, at 92, Seeger marched all the way from Zuccotti Park to Columbus Circle in New York City with Occupy Wall Street activists. His death on Jan. 27, at the age of 94, was mourned across the world by progressive, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist organizers.